Litigious Experience

Jimi Hendrix's kin are still fighting over his estate.

HOW DID JIMI HENDRIX put it? Is this love or confusion? In newly filed court papers related to the Hendrix family fight over the legendary Seattle rocker's musical empire, two siblings are questioning the other's birthright—literally—and saying each has defamed the other. One, Jimi's brother, Leon, also claims that his late father defamed him—by denying he is his father.

It's a nasty, high-stakes legal fight wherein each side calls the other bastard, and really means it. In one corner, Seattle musician Leon Hendrix, 54, who is seeking a share of the estate, says he's Jimi's younger brother and always has been. In the other, Janie Hendrix, 41, Jimi's adopted stepsister who controls the marketing and ownership rights to Jimi's memorabilia, insists Leon is just the late rocker's half brother and has no legal claim to Jimi's millions.

She contends that while Leon was born to Jimi's mother, Lucille, Leon's father was a man with whom Lucille had an affair. Lucille—she died in 1958—had five children altogether, not all necessarily by Jimi's father, Al Hendrix, who died this year. Both parents were known to drink and carouse, court papers say. After their 1951 divorce, Al took custody of only Jimi and Leon.

IF JANIE, THE CEO of Seattle-based Experience Hendrix, prevails in her assertion, Leon's claim to the family empire could be fruitless. As a legal move, Leon has just filed a new lawsuit—his sixth this year against Janie—for defamation. He claims she circulated false rumors of his illegitimacy to block his inheritance.

Leon also contends that it's Janie who doesn't know who her father is.

She was born out of wedlock five years before her Japanese mother became Al's second wife, he maintains. "The identity of Janie's father is unknown, but he is believed to be of German descent," alleges Leon's suit, filed Oct. 10 in King County Superior Court.

Janie hasn't responded to that accusation yet, which may have little bearing on the case. But just days earlier, in one of the other ongoing familial lawsuits, Janie claimed Leon had already slandered her business reputation. She cites a May interview on KIRO-AM in which Leon accused Janie of cheating him out of millions, saying she "hijacked the Hendrix family and the family name." Janie also cites a June interview Leon gave to the London Mail, in which he said Janie was behind "the biggest rip-off in rock and roll history."

Well, says Leon, "Truth is a defense, isn't it?" A struggling singer-guitarist, he was reached last week in Los Angeles after a club performance. He said he couldn't speak in detail about the lawsuits but claimed, "Janie has been telling lies about me for years." His own tiny Hendrix empire includes a new CD (Seattle Rain), a T-shirt line, and a Web site (www.leonhendrix.com).

In a statement issued last week to Seattle Weekly, Janie Hendrix—commenting on the court fight for the first time to "set the record straight"—says, "Leon is fighting dad and dad's wishes. He's not fighting me. It's unfortunate that another legal battle has ensued around Jimi's legacy, one with the potential to chip away at all the positive energy brought into this world by Jimi and his music." Though in court papers she refers to Leon as Jimi's half-brother, in a new "fact sheet" outlining the cases she says, "Leon Hendrix is Jimi Hendrix's younger brother," pointedly adding: "Leon Hendrix, who has a long history of drug and alchohol abuse, is currently trying to start a music career at age 55 [54].

THE SKIRMISHES ARE reminiscent of some earlier fights over Jimi Hendrix's estate since his 1970 death in London, at age 27, from an apparent drug overdose. Several children, including one named Jimi Hendrix, failed to prove claims that the innovative guitarist was their father. The then-half-million-dollar estate went to father Al, a Central District gardener and landscaper. His death last April, at age 83 (he's buried in Renton next to Jimi), set off the legal fight, and as in the 1970s, it's over much more than fatherhood. The postmortem music and product licensing of Jimi Hendrix—including Hendrix coffee tables, drinking mugs, golf balls, and a signature Audi sports car—is generating a reported $8 million in sales annually and has an accrued value of more than $100 million.

Leon has received comparatively little of his family's riches. In court records, he indicates that he signed away his right to the empire for $300,000 in 1992, "at what he believed was the request of his father" (the business was then being run for Al by a Hollywood entertainment attorney). Leon apparently also was given claim to a trust worth at least $700,000, and later, at Al's request, received modest benefits from the rights to one of Jimi's gold records, selected by Janie. In her statement last week, Janie says that, altogether, Leon and his children received $1.1 million for the rights in 1993, with Leon getting $700,000 (Leon has six children and is separated from his wife). One of Janie's lawyers says Leon was to receive additional money as well but failed to pass an agreed-upon requirement, periodic drug tests. (After Jimi died, Leon, then 22, turned increasingly to drugs and ended up in prison). Janie also says she was as surprised as Leon by Al's will. "I was shocked," Jamie proclaims, "that Leon didn't receive anything but a gold album from dad. To be honest, I thought the attorneys were joking when they first read this part of the will. . . . I can understand how Leon would feel hurt, but the truth is, dad was very much aware of the decisions he was making about the future of the estate."

Janie did not waive her rights and urged Al to regain control of the estate, which he did in 1995. But according to Leon in court papers, "Al was . . . easily persuaded to allow Janie to take control of all matters. . . . " Leon and "the rest of the family [were] shunned, including Janie's own sisters and mother," says Leon. (Al married Janie's mother, June Fujita, in 1966; they separated in the 1990s, and June died in 1999. Al adopted Janie in 1968, when she was 7. She met Jimi but a few times.)

"Janie refused to allow Leon or his family to appear at public events honoring Jimi and his music," Leon's suit contends. "When Al was hospitalized, Janie instructed hospital caretakers that Leon was dangerous and should not be permitted to visit Al. As a final insult, Janie restricted access to Al's funeral and refused to allow Leon's family to attend."

LEON'S AIM IS TO overturn Al's will, which names Janie as personal representative of the estate with funds to be distributed through a new trust agreement—which essentially disinherits Leon. His first response was a June lawsuit seeking estate evidence from Janie, eventually garnering 485 pages of materials related to the trust and three previous wills. In August, he filed three more actions—contesting the will, challenging the trust, and seeking damages from Janie.

Also in August, through a different attorney, he filed a creditor's claim against the estate. In that suit, he argues that his father defamed him by indicating Leon was not his true son. The legal strategy apparently is to hold the father—and thus the estate—responsible for damages if Leon is unsuccessful in his suits against Janie.

Janie says she has the words of the alleged non-father to back her illegitimacy claim. "Leon and Jimmy had the same mother," Al Hendrix wrote in his 1999 book, My Son Jimi, but "Jimmy [sic] is my only child."

Retorts Leon in an interview: "She printed that book herself. That was an in-house book. My dad was incapacitated in his last years. He didn't know what he was saying or signing." Al's expressed doubt about Leon's birthright is also contradicted in a 1978 will, in which Al wrote that Leon was his "one natural, living child."

Had Jimi Hendrix lived, Leon pointed out last week, he would have turned 60 on Nov. 27. Janie hasn't overlooked the date, either. Along with the Experience Music Project, Janie's company opened a new Hendrix show, "Jimi Hendrix Backstage," in Paris last week. It's a display of Hendrix music and artifacts to celebrate his would-be 60th. A press release quotes Janie Hendrix: "We, the family of Jimi Hendrix, are pleased to be a part of this exciting exhibit. . . . " Most of the family, anyway.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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